2016 was a huge year for Misty Copeland — she became the American Ballet Theatre’s first ever African-American principal dancer, she married her longtime boyfriend and she’ll take on Clara in The Nutcracker this December — but getting there wasn’t easy.
Copeland says her athletic body — which is considered unconventional for ballet — held her back.
“I didn’t go through puberty until I was 19, and I was already a professional. So everyone’s expecting your body, as your instrument, to look a certain way,” the dancer tells SELF for their December cover story.
That led to criticism over her body.
“Being told to lose weight, and being African American, not having anyone else around who looked like me, caused me so much doubt,” Copeland says.
But she persevered, and figured out how to prove that her muscular shape can fit in.
“I’m not trying to change classical ballet. I love everything about it. But we have to show that we’re athletes,” Copeland says. We’re putting in the same amount of work; we have the same muscles.”
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Copeland hopes that she’s changing expectations for all ballerinas.
“I feel like I’m representing not just the little brown girls but all African-American dancers who have come before me who were never promoted because of the color of their skin,” she says.
“I want to show the ballet world it’s possible to do all these things and not be rail-thin or have blonde hair.”